Useful Theory: Social Ecological Model

Illustration of "Fred" with a complex diagram of factors like income, work, education, health insurance, culture, and government, with the caption "See? it's this easy!"

As health communicators, behavior change is our bread and butter. Often, our approach is to tell people to adopt healthy behaviors and ditch unhealthy ones.

This instinct makes sense. If your goal is to help Fred manage his type 1 diabetes, you’ll start by communicating with Fred. Maybe you’ll give him an easy-to-follow schedule for taking his insulin and share tips for eating healthy (written in plain language, of course).

So, is that it? Not according to the Social Ecological Model.

The Social Ecological Model (McLeroy, et al. 1988) is the next stop on our tour of useful theories. This model says that successful health promotion targets individuals and their environments. That’s because whether we like it or not, our families, communities, interactions, and culture all affect how we act. So, if you change people’s environments, you can often change their behavior.

Fred might be more likely to take his insulin at the right time if his friends and family know the schedule and remind him. Or he might be more likely to eat healthy if fresh foods are easy to get at the corner store.

So you might be thinking — that’s great, but how do I change my readers’ environments? You may not be able to (at least not on your own), but you can help promote positive influences. For example, you could:

  • Create a diabetes management campaign that targets patients’ social networks
  • Work with local community groups to encourage shopkeepers to sell fresh fruits and vegetables at a fair price

As a health writer, it’s important to understand the role a person’s environment plays in shaping health behavior. Some influences, like politics or mass media, are harder to change. But others, like social support or community resources, are reachable.

Fred will thank you.

The bottom line: Try taking an ecological approach to health promotion. If you change people’s environments, you’ll be more likely to change their behaviors.